Women’s History Month: Comic icon Alison Bechdel

Graphic artist Alison Bechdel

Graphic artist Alison Bechdel (Photo: Flickr/Chase Elliot Clark)


Have you heard of the Bechdel Test?

I hadn’t until recently, but it’s been around for nearly three decades. It’s a test of gender bias in fiction — or in popular film, television, etc. — that can be measured by this simple rule: if there are two women in the book who talk to one another, not counting family members, and who actually talk about something other than men, the work passes as non-biased.

More interesting than the test, perhaps, is how the idea came about. Alison Bechdel started publishing her comic strips, “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1983. The series has become iconic and historic in lesbian/queer culture, syndicated in more than 50 publications, anthologized and translated into several languages. The Bechdel Test came out of a 1985 comic strip titled “The Rule,” in which a character says she only watches a movie that meets such criteria — two women who talk to each other and not about men.

While Bechdel credits a friend for the idea, feminist critics have adopted the Bechdel Test as a standard by which to measure movies, books and television, even now, in the 21st century, for gender bias. Imagine that — you draw a cartoon and become part of social history! By the way, according to feminist critics, an overwhelming number of films and books fail this simple test.image03

Alison Bechdel is a woman who made history, who records our history and who continues to do so. In addition to decades of her long-running political and social commentary in “Dykes to Watch Out For,” Bechdel broke new ground in 2006 with her graphic memoir, “Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic,” about her father, who was a closeted gay man, her relationship to him and her own coming out. The book won Best Book of 2006 from Time Magazine. Imagine that, too — a book about being a lesbian and having a gay father winning best book of the year by the mainstream Time Magazine! Now that’s history. The book was also a National Book Critics Award Finalist.

Bechdel’s most recent work is another graphic memoir, “Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama,” released in 2012. She is a 2012-2013 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.

And all this from a woman who started writing a comic strip about dykes back in the 1980s. Go, Alison Bechdel! You are recording history as you make it!

To learn more about Bechdel, her work, and her works in progress, see www.alisonbechdel.com.

Cindy Zelman is a writer based in Boston, whose blog, “The Early Draft,” explores a variety of topics, including lesbianism, writing, agoraphobia and humor.

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